The big theatre news today is that Emma Rice is stepping down as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe. I must admit that the first thing I felt when I heard this news was unrivalled joy (followed by guilt: I’m not that heartless, and at the end of the day, someone has lost their job).
When Rice’s appointment was announced, I had major reservations. She had only directed one Shakespeare play in the past, and admitted in interviews that his work “sent her to sleep”. I was surprised, to be honest, that she was considered the best choice. Still, I wanted to give her a chance: her first season sounded genuinely interesting, and as a feminist I wanted to celebrate and support the fact that a woman had been chosen for such a major post. Rice had been really successful as AD of Kneehigh theatre company, and there was the possibility that she would be able to translate that success to the Globe.
I’ve reviewed the productions that I’ve seen this summer, but by and large, I was disappointed. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, so acclaimed by many, bored me and the modern lighting, which lit the stage while leaving the pit in darkness, left the audience removed from the action, destroying the very thing that made the Globe special – the relationship between actor and audience that brought Shakespeare’s plays to life in a way I haven’t experienced in any other theatre I’ve visited.
The statement from the Globe Board suggests that these same concerns have led to Rice’s departure. Some people have suggested that this is a smokescreen and there are other issues at stake, and they may be right: I have no professional involvement in the theatre business, and I don’t pretend to know how boards work or how the Globe Board thinks, but to me it’s entirely plausible, and I wholeheartedly agree with this statement in particular:
The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work.
I am slightly puzzled as to why Rice was appointed in the first place: surely the board knew about her previous work and (lack of) Shakespeare experience? What did they expect?
It bothers me that the argument has been presented by many commentators as boring and safe and traditional versus diverse and new and exciting. As if the theatre under Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole was ever just a museum piece. I’ve had some of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre at the Globe during the latter’s tenure, from midnight matinées to the Henry VI trilogy day, which ended in pouring rain that still didn’t spoil the event, and from the amazing Globe to Globe Festival in 2012 to the triumphant return of the World Hamlet company earlier this year after spending two years travelling the (real) Globe. I’d argue that in a city full of theatres that often produce (brilliant) modern day Shakespeare, the Globe actually adds to cultural diversity by offering a unique experience with Shakespeare largely performed in traditional dress and making use of practices in keeping with the ethos of the theatre. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely authentic – some critics have suggested that they should go the whole hog and hand out Elizabethan diseases and let people piss on the floor, which is completely missing the point. I also hope that Rice’s accessibility innovations are kept, such as surtitles, sign language interpreted performances, and relaxed performances. I do think that any decision needs to work with the space, not against it: the lighting rigs and microphones, however, show a fundamental lack of understanding of the Globe space – effectively trying to push a square peg into a round hole, and turning the Globe into a theatre just like any other, with the added disadvantage that you might get rained on. I appreciate that lots of people loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even if I hated it, but my biggest issue was that it could have been performed absolutely anywhere.
I honestly wish Emma Rice all the best. I’m sure she’ll find the success she deserves: it’s telling that my favourite production of her 2016 season was not a Shakespeare, but The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, a work Rice originally directed with Kneehigh. I would love to see more of her work away from the Globe, and I hope whoever is chosen to be the theatre’s next Artistic Director loves and respects Shakespeare, and is able to work with the space to make wonderful productions.